A life on the wing – interview: Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown. The RAF pilot who has flown 487 different planes. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown survived being torpedoed in the Atlantic in 1941 and went on to become a highly decorated Fleet Air Arm officer and legendary test pilot. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Neil Godwin-Stubbert.
We live in a world of diminishing firsts. But scroll back to a time before celebrities without portfolio demanded our attention, when the word ‘hero’ still had some currency, and there was a breed of men who became legends on the quiet. Captain Eric Melrose ‘Winkle’ Brown CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN, was among their number. This former Royal Navy officer and test pilot holds the record for flying the largest number of different types of aircraft (487). The Leith-bom Scot was also the first man to land on – and take off from – an aircraft carrier in a fighter jet. Heck, he still holds the world record for the most carrier landings: 2407, many performed while testing arrestor wires during World War Two. Oh, and he is the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated pilot.
This is just a thumbnail sketch of a life packed with danger and intrigue, all of which seems a world away as we are ushered into the officers’ mess at RNAS Yeovilton. Pilots 60 years his junior and more are sitting in puckered silence. They’re a picture of rapt attention. Brown wears his status lightly, answering questions with grace and humour before signing books, caps, napkins; anything that is to hand. Then it’s our turn.
Outside sits an MG Magnette, much like his first car, and today is all about staging a reunion of sorts. ‘Of course, I never used the tonneau cover. I had no need for one as my car was always full of girls,’ the 96-year-old deadpans as he takes his place behind the wheel.
‘I haven’t seen one since 1940. I had a few adventures in mine; went all over Europe in it. I was in the third year of my honours degree at Edinburgh University (in modern languages) when someone from the Foreign Office visited and asked if I would be interested in joining the Diplomatic Corps. I would have to spend six months in Germany and six months in France. Of course I was keen. I was sent to a boarding school in Salem on Lake Constance and the Lycee at Metz. While I was in Germany, I went to Munich of a weekend and was put up in a little gasthaus.
‘On the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939, there was this almighty banging on the door. I was roused from my sleep and, when I opened it, there were three members of the SS: two lieutenants and a lady interpreter. “I’m afraid you will have to come with us because our countries are at war,” she said. I was a guest of the SS. I wasn’t mistreated, but they took everything, including the MG.’
Brown had turned 20 barely a month earlier and looked set to sit out the war in a cell. ‘It was a tense time, but three days later a young SS lieutenant announced that I would be taken to the Swiss frontier and handed over. Anyway, I was in this Mercedes with a young officer. I could see out of the little window in the back that an SS sergeant was following in my MG. When we reached the location for the exchange, I asked the officer why, having taken my money, clothes and books, were they returning my car? He replied: “Because we have no spares… I had to admire his Teutonic logic.’
However, that wasn’t the end of his adventure. ‘The entrance to the Swiss frontier was a bridge across a ravine,’ he recalls. ‘I had a machine gun pointed at my back as I drove across and another pointing towards me. Of course, the Swiss had no idea I was coming over. I was locked up while calls were made. Then the British ambassador interviewed me, gave me some petrol coupons and told me to drive to Calais. He said: “You have to get back because I’ve got your call-up papers here.”
‘I made it to Calais but wasn’t allowed to put the Magnette on the ferry – it was for military vehicles only. A chap from the RAC promised to keep an eye on the car and return it in a few months’ time. He kept his word. Two months later I got it back.’
The car was delivered to where we are now standing, RNAS Yeovilton, at that time little more than a grass airfield. ‘I later sold it to my engine fitter who had looked after me so well. He paid £5.’
Brown – the ‘Winkle’ moniker was derived from periwinkle and bestowed due to his slight physical stature – recounts this early brush with jeopardy with matter-of-fact frankness before conversation turns to the Hawker Sea Fury T20 alongside. It is at this juncture that the base commander arrives. He’s en route to a meeting, but his eyes widen into full ovals, his lips forming a silent expletive as he recognises a superstar in his midst. He requests a photo, all the while apologising profusely. While the Sea Fury is being prepared for flight, we then retire to a palatial Portakabin where Brown relates where the interest in flying originated.
‘I think what triggered it was seeing a picture of my father in an RAF sea uniform’, he says. ‘It hung in the lounge and that rather captured my imagination as a young boy. He was away quite a lot, but when he was home I asked him questions about flying and he was happy to answer them. My mother, however, was rather less keen. In fact, she actively discouraged him.
‘When I was very young, probably about eight, he took me flying in a Gloster Gauntlet. I sat in his lap. Well, my mother was not happy when she found out. My father caught hell, but it was too late, I was hooked. I knew then what I wanted to do in life, but of course there was still the small matter of finishing my education. But really, it was a good few years before I had what I suppose you’d call a defining moment.
‘In 1936, 1 was preparing to go to university when my father and I went to Germany. We were in Berlin for two reasons. First, and primarily, we were there to watch the Olympic Games. Second, the Germans had a combatants’ association and they invited those who had fought against them in The Great War to their meetings. One of the main people involved was legendary pilot Ernst Udet. He had been co-opted into joining the Nazi Party by his former WW1 squadron commander, Hermann Goring, but wasn’t happy about it. He wasn’t particularly interested in the political side of things. Anyway, my father had asked Udet beforehand if he would mind if I attended the meeting with him. Well, he really liked young people and was most welcoming.’
So much so, a few days later the teenager found himself aboard a Bucker Jungmann training aircraft with Udet at the controls. ‘I wondered why he was so particular about me being strapped in so tightly. I soon found out. He was perhaps the most respected aerobatic pilot in the world, having flown under Baron von Richthofen. The upshot was that he put on the most amazing display of aerobatics. Afterwards, he told me I had the right spirit to be a fighter pilot but first I had to do two things: learn to fly and learn to speak German.’
He did both. Brown’s wartime record has been covered in great depth elsewhere, not least in his excellent book Wings on my Sleeve. He was one of only two survivors of 802 Squadron after HMS Audacity was torpedoed by U-751 in December 1941. By the end of 1943, he had performed around 1500 deck landings on 22 different carriers. He also became increasingly involved in flying prototypes and had a front row seat at the dawn of the Jet Age, working with Frank Whittle at Farnborough. Just don’t call him an adrenalin junkie.
‘There were some pilots who viewed it as a game,’ he ponders. ‘There were others who had a fatalistic attitude: when your number’s up, it’s up. I never thought like that. What we were doing was extremely dangerous, but I did everything I could to minimise risk. I had my leg pulled mercilessly for reading everything I could about enemy aircraft. Other pilots only wanted to know what kind of guns a plane had, but I wanted to get an idea of how it flew; to know what I might be up against.’
Brown would go on to fly countless captured Axis aircraft. He would also interrogate the likes of Kurt Tank (designer of the Focke-Wulf Fw190), Ernst Heinkel and Willy Messerschmitt. He also quizzed aviatrix Hanna Reitsch and they continued to correspond until her death in 1979. ‘She opened a gliding school and did her best to rehabilitate her reputation,’ he says. ‘She liked to make out that she had been naive, but Hanna was a true believer. She adored Hitler.’ Brown also interrogated the likes of Goring and Heinrich Himmler, having witnessed the horrors of Belsen first-hand following its liberation.
Conversation then turns to the aircraft that got away. ‘The record books say I flew 487 different aircraft but that isn’t strictly true. I flew far more than that! It’s just that the likes of, say, the Spitfire is counted as one aircraft whereas there were umpteen variants. I flew them all. As for the aircraft I would have liked to have flown, I was very keen to fly the North American X-15.’ Despite the likes of Neil Armstrong petitioning the powers-that-be, he never got to experience the fastest-ever rocket- powered aircraft. ‘Strictly speaking, I could have flown it but the US authorities insisted that I became an American citizen first.’
Brown could conceivably have been the first man to breach the sound barrier had the Miles M52 supersonic project not been cancelled – without explanation – in February 1946. It’s a question that nudges to be asked, but did he feel any animosity towards Chuck Yeager after he exceeded Mach 1 in 1947? Brown smiles from ear to ear before replying: ‘No. Chuck and I got on OK. That said, there was meant to be an exchange of information with the Americans but it was somewhat one-sided. The Miles’ moveable tail design made all the difference when Bell applied it to the XS-1.’
And with that, the interview is over. The Sea Fury is being warmed up outside our window, its Bristol Centaurus engine detonating sound at a sky-filling volume. Brown is keen to see it take off. Watching it taxi, several bystanders collar us to rail against an injustice. Despite being bestowed with countless honours, a knighthood has somehow eluded this remarkable man. Given his bravery in battle, and remarkable contribution to aviation, this is a poor reflection on the honours system. The petitioning starts here.
THANKS TO the Fly Navy Heritage Trust (www.fnht.co. uk), MG owners Donald and Janet Ann Smith, and Patrick Crew.
Above and left. Brown in a Hawker Hurricane during WW2; reunited with an MG Magnette like the one that was briefly requisitioned by the Nazi SS in 1939, when he was held prisoner in Munich.
‘The records say I flew 487 different aircraft but that isn’t strictly true. It was far more than that!’